Breaking Up: Deciding to Realign
Interviewing: Marriage - Who the Women Are
It took, I think, a certain strong-mindedness and realism for adulterous women who wanted their marriages to break up to accomplish their separations without immediately substituting lovers for husbands. Certainly realignment was the more frequent urge and many women went directly from their husbands’ to their lovers’ orbits. But they did not always revolve there happily. All too often they had chosen partners whom they did not know well or deeply.
This happened because of the very nature of adultery. Women who have seen men only under conditions of secrecy can rarely be certain that their attachments are not the result of the compression of emotional and sexual exchange into brief, bittersweet moments. They often suspect that the men they have chosen value them precisely because of their lack of availability or are themselves in some way emotionally unavailable. Often they make definite negative estimations of their lovers, yet even so desire realignment. They say they are in love and are compelled to act.
Once in a while a married woman does accurately select a lover who is for her a potentially compatible mate after marriage, despite the impediments adultery places in the way. But even under these circumstances, obstacles to the realignment are rampant. It is difficult to speed from one relationship to another with no detours or accidents in between.
Beverly Sneden / Most People Mourn the Death of Their Marriages
Beverly Sneden had left her husband and moved in with her lover. I met her while doing some research for an article I was planning on mental health clinics. She ran one. She was a psychologist, very assertive, very direct, asking me as many questions as I asked her. I liked the forthrightness of her manner, and I began talking to her about my work. The article, I explained, was something I would turn to in the near future. Right now I was finishing a book on women who had extramarital relations.
It was a fascinating subject, Beverly said supportively. Almost all her female patients had had extramarital experiences or at least extramarital fantasies. Had what I found confirmed her impression, that extramarital sex was highly prevalent among women?
I said, yes, I had found a great deal of it, but that one thing surprised me. There seemed to be so few extramarital affairs that terminated happily, or at least happily in the old-time romantic sense; few lovers chose one another, overcame obstacles, and ended up living contentedly together.
Beverly said, “Yes. But then, you’d better interview me. I was married ten years, in love with my next-door neighbor for seven of those years, had an affair with him for one year, and now both he and I have left our spouses and are living together. We’ve taken a house.”
“How long have you been living together?” I asked.
“Six months,” she said. “And I am happy, busy, and overflowing with love. Even my kids feel good about it. They love Nick too. He was almost like a father to them, and they love having him in their own family now. It softens any rage they might feel about being separated from their own father.”
We agreed on an interview date. We were both very busy and couldn’t choose a time sooner than a month from that initial meeting. We each wrote it down. Five o’clock. At my office.
A week before our interview date, Beverly called me and began speaking very agitatedly. “I don’t think you’ll want to interview me,” she said.
“It’s not a love story. It’s just another one of those things you found over and over again. He’s moving out.”
“How do you feel?”
“I’m breaking in two. I feel I can’t breathe. That I’m choking. I’m going to need medication. I can’t even drag myself to work. I’ve been in bed for three days. He told me on the weekend and he’s packed already.”
I thought, that’s different, or at least, if other women I’d spoken to had felt this way, they hadn’t spelled it out for me. They had all seemed so controlled about the end of their affairs. Of course the end of their affairs had all been more distant by the time I spoke with them.
I told Beverly that I wanted to interview her anyway, even if her story hadn’t had a happy ending. “If you can bear to tell me,” I said. She said, “Yes, of course. And if I’m still here, still among the living.”
And so we met a week later in my office. It was summer and the air conditioning was on. Doors closed, windowless, the room began to seem stifling to me, as if I too might choke on Beverly’s anguish. I saw now the opposite side of the coin of her forthrightness. Even though she was taking tranquilizers, she was clamorous and histrionic. Her pain had to be shared. She was, I supposed, of the school that holds that emotions should not be restrained or they will rise up and taunt at some later time. Still, I wished for her sake she had gotten them more under control. It seemed frightening to me to watch a woman I had found so capable and interested in things outside herself only a month ago lost now in the sensations of her own depression. What troubled me most was that she seemed to want to mock herself, to demean herself.
She told me first that she didn’t want to shock me but that there was one part of her story she felt might do so. I said, “I’ve heard everything.” “Not this,” she said.
What it was was the way she courted her neighbor, the way she first pried her way into his heart. Even he had never been told. “I’ve had the hots for this guy as far back as I can remember,” she said. “His wife was a good friend of mine. And three years ago the women in my neighborhood formed a consciousness-raising group. I had prior knowledge of the dissolution of his life with his wife, of precisely what she wouldn’t give him at the table and in conversation, and what she would no longer do in bed. And I used it all. Oh, how I used it. But I never felt guilty, and I don’t now. Because I loved him.”
Beverly had married her husband ten years ago, after an active young womanhood that had included many sexual and emotional relationships. She was, then as now, tall, buxom, dark-skinned and crowned with a head of curly, thick black hair.
“What was wrong with your marriage?” I asked.
“It’s much easier to tell you what was right,” she said. “To tell you what was right will take thirty seconds. There was nothing right. To tell you what was wrong will bore you by taking forever.”
“Did you know you weren’t suited before you married?” I asked.
“Yes. I knew my husband and I had nothing, but I tried to make up for it in my head. I was twenty-six years old and tired of living alone. I had fucked everything that walks, breathes or crawls—oaktrees, avocados. I couldn’t pay my Bloomingdale’s bills. I didn’t want to work anymore. Instead of going to a shrink, which I should have done then—I only did that three years later—I went to Puerto Rico to a conference. I got out of the taxi from the airport, and in front of the hotel in which the meetings would be held there was this man, this solid, not bad-looking substantial guy just standing in front of the building. He was a chemist, on vacation alone. And we began to see each other and we saw each other for a year and we got married.”
I said, “Yes, that was what was wrong about you, but what about him?”
She said, “He was a man who was in every sense of the word a loner. He did not need people and I do. He views his life as a structure and I view mine as a process. He was unavailable. He could not communicate. But I didn’t care. I was going to make a home for myself, a family for myself. You see, this was 1964.”
“You mean, ’way back then’?”
“Yes,” she said. “It was a different world. For me, at least, it was a different world. My mother had died when I was a little kid, and I was raised by my grandparents, and I was tired, so tired of living without a family of my own. I just decided I’d make one. Perhaps it’s different today and women of twenty-six who aren’t married no longer feel so useless. But I doubt it.”
She and her husband had raised three children, and she had continued to work. The children played with the children of the next-door neighbors, Nick and Ramona. Beverly gradually grew intensely attached to both of her neighbors. Unlike her husband, Nick and Ramona were talkative, intellectual, alert—her psychological equals. They amused her, looked after her, masked the disappointment she felt in her marital choice once she had admitted it to her consciousness.
Nick and Ramona were more worldly, more sophisticated than Beverly. They had traveled, lived abroad. Beverly took up their hobbies. She studied Italian cooking and learned about wines and read all of Nick’s favorite books. Both he and Ramona were journalists and current events were very important to them. As a psychologist, Beverly had insights to offer, and the three of them broadened each other. Nick loved to ride and Beverly, terrified of horses, took lessons and got on a horse for the first time and rode as if she were fearless. She was in therapy and her therapist urged her to make the best of her life since she had chosen it.
Then three years ago the women in Beverly’s neighborhood started their consciousness-raising group and both Beverly and Ramona decided to participate. The group grew intimate and Ramona said things about her marriage she had never said even in years of friendship with Beverly. She began to confess boredom with Nick, boredom with marriage, the desire for personal self-fulfillment. Nick was sexually demanding and Ramona was turning off. Some women in the group supported her staunchly: the sex trips men laid on women were too heavy; wives were entitled, even obligated, to refuse sex when they were not turned on. Ramona also confided that she found Nick’s perpetual conversation somewhat battering; it gave her no time to think her own thoughts. When she wanted to work on a story at night, he was in and out of her study with observations on what he had just read, just heard announced on the television, just witnessed at the supermarket.
It was Nick’s very obtrusiveness that Beverly liked. He was so different from her own morose husband. “So in the group I began making notes in my head,” she said. “I kept mental notes of just what Nick was no longer being supplied, and when, and how, and where. It was all very Machiavellian. I used the group. I used Ramona. I even manipulated her. I took a position basically foreign to myself. ’Yes,’ I would say, ’yes, even the most well-meaning men are limiting us with their constant demands for attention.’ But still, I didn’t take anything away from Ramona. I just fit in, just went along with something that was already happening in Ramona’s head. I didn’t smash anything. I just picked up the pieces. What I took was no longer in use.”
Ramona had not discussed with Nick her growing disenchantment. But increasingly there were marital squabbles. Finally, Ramona reported to the group that she had told Nick she didn’t want to sleep with him for a while, not till she cleared her head. Beverly began to be actively seductive.
“To this day he doesn’t know the schedule by which he was seduced. I mean, he was hit. With both barrels. In places where he had no way of knowing that I knew he was vulnerable. It’s really not cricket, but I had to do it. I had loved him for years. She didn’t want him; I did. I felt our destinies were linked. I did everything humanly possible to get his love, and it’s terrifying to think of all that effort gone to waste now. Perhaps it was because the relationship was intrinsically dishonest, but I actually don’t think so.”
Beverly began picking Nick up in the city after their work days had ended. “It was the nature of my husband that if I called at five o’clock and said, ’I won’t be home until about eleven,’ he asked no questions. He always operated by denial. I mean he blotted out things he didn’t want to know. All the possibilities of what I might be doing, he blotted out in his head, and I just went about my business. As to Ramona, she thought Nick was staying away to keep out of her hair and give her breathing space. So we were able to work out a fairly regular schedule.
“I’d gotten Nick interested in therapy and he had group therapy on Wednesday nights. I’d meet him after the group, and we’d go to an apartment we were lent by a friend. On Thursday nights Nick had a private session with his therapist. We always met after that too, for lovemaking. And then we’d meet a third night to have dinner or see a movie before going to the apartment. We used to pray for snow that winter, but only for Wednesday or Thursday snows, like kids praying for their Monopoly pieces to land on just one certain space. And twice, I remember, it did snow on one of our nights and we got the kind of big heavy snowstorms that entitle you to call home and say, ’I’d think it’d be best if I didn’t drive home tonight. The roads look bad and there’s no way of knowing how long it will take.’ How I prayed for snow. And those two snowy nights were the happiest nights of my life. I didn’t care if the world got covered up and blotted out with snow, as long as he and I were buried in its softness together.
“Late in February we both asked for divorces. My husband moved out right afterwards. Nick took a little longer. Ramona was agreeable, but at first she wanted him to have the kids. Then she reneged. He wouldn’t have minded. He loves his kids, all kids; it’s part of how wonderful he is. But she decided in the end to keep them, and he took an apartment in the city. Now we had my place to meet in, and he dropped in whenever he felt like it. Noontime, evenings. His need for me was enormous. He was really scared. Living alone, missing his kids, not knowing what was going to happen to him. He needed me to be with him day and night.
“And then, at the end of March, we rented a home together. We wanted to start out in a new place, with no old associations. We were very happy. At least, I was, and I assumed he was. We did all the things we’d always done, talked about all the things we’d always talked about, but now it was in our house together. He was transferring his love for his kids to mine, and they were transferring their love of their father to him, and I was never so good at my life or my job. That’s the way it was for six months. That’s the way it still was last month, when you and I first met and I told you yes, there were love stories and happy endings.”
“How did it all go wrong so fast?” I asked.
Beverly said, “I suppose it started to go wrong earlier, but that I had refused to notice the evidence. About two months ago, Nick had begun saying things like, ’Maybe we were too hasty, moving in together. Maybe we should have taken some time for adjustment.’ I had said, ’But you love me, don’t you?’ and he had said, ’Yes, yes, but it’s all so fast.’ He’d known Ramona since he was twenty, married her when he was twenty-four, broken up with her at thirty-four, and moved right in with me. He had never had the kind of free, cruising sexual experiences that men relish and require for decision-making. I pointed out that the point of those experiences was to fall in love, and that if he was already in love, they were beside the point. But he was insistent. So I backed off a little, gave him some rein. I understood how he felt, and actually, back then, I didn’t feel at all threatened. I knew it would be a better relationship if Nick got a chance to do some exploring. So we had agreed that on Wednesdays and Thursdays, he would stay late in the city, presumably to date other women and see for himself how he felt about me. I could do this, you see, because I was utterly secure in the power of my own love and respect for him.”
That had been the situation until I first met Beverly. But two weeks ago Nick had gone to the Caribbean on a vacation alone. He had called Beverly four out of the five nights he was gone. But when he came back he had announced to her that he could no longer live with her, that perhaps he had used her to help him get out of his marriage and that he did not want to live his life with her. At least not right now.
Beverly had pleaded, sobbed, fallen apart. As she came to this part of her story, she was as distraught as she had been a week ago when she called me. “I don’t know how I will survive this. I am living on tranquilizers. I need two Seconal at night. I loved him for seven years!”
And then she stopped her mourning for a moment, and was—and I could see that she would be again—her professional self, not wallowing but seeking. “Have you noticed I never say anything about missing my husband? Most people mourn the death of their marriages. Not me. I never mourned it once. But I guess everyone has to pay their dues. You can’t expect to get out of marriage scot-free. There’s always something to mourn.”
“Perhaps Nick will come back,” I said, hoping to comfort her.
“No,” she said, rejecting my superficial palliative. “Even if he does, it’ll be years from now. He’ll be different. I’ll be different.” And then she was dismal again. “My kids ask me all the time where Nick is. They don’t ask where their Daddy is. They know where Daddy is. They go to see him every weekend. But they never see Nick anymore. And that hurts them so much. They want to know why he doesn’t like them anymore. Why they can’t play with his kids anymore. You know, this is really divorce. You are never as divorced from a man you married as from one you loved but never even married.”
Ann Simpson / It Wasn’t Just a Case of “Her or Me”
I felt dismayed by my interview with Beverly. Was this always the end of affairs, then? Did no one who entered an affair while married realign and live happily with her once-extramarital lover? Were extramarital experimentation and love-seeking always merely peripheral to women’s lives or always doomed to failure? But of course, some women did end up living contentedly with their lovers. I found a few of them eventually.
There was Ann Simpson in Dayton. A friend in New York was a childhood friend of hers. “She and Steve have been happy together for six years now,” said the friend. “But it was rough going in the beginning. A lot of the people they knew took sides against them, and they almost had to move, but they stayed put and it all blew over. One thing neighbors can’t resist is a happy peaceful home alongside them. And they tend to forget soon enough how it got put together.”
The Simpson house on a sidewalkless sunny street was indeed peaceful and also impeccably neat. I was surprised, since I’d heard the Simpsons had six children, two of Steve’s and three of Ann’s and one between them. “Well, of course, Steve’s are off in college,” Ann explained. “And when they’re back, they live with their mother. So all we do is keep an empty bedroom for them for the nights they come to visit. For years they didn’t even come. They were so angry at their father. But they do come now sometimes.”
Ann was tall and awkward and forty-five. I thought it inconceivable that she had ever seduced another woman’s husband. She looked more like a woman who always won her prizes at covered casserole suppers. “If anyone had told either of us that we would have ended up in an extramarital affair, and then married,” she said, “I’m sure we would have been shocked. Steve’s a solid family man and I was raised as a strict Baptist and there’s a lot of Baptist still in me.”
But they had done both. They had met at the art museum where both were delivering children to Saturday morning classes. They had become friends, introduced their spouses to one another and only ever so gradually become intimate, driving away, after delivering the children, to a small motel out on the highway. Ann brought flowers and homebaked cookies to the motel room.
“We talked about our families and our responsibilities to them a lot before we went to bed. In fact, I think we tried to avoid physical contact at first. Steve more than me. He had cut out on his wife a couple of times in twenty years. Maybe twice or three times. They were very brief things, not bothering anybody. But with me he knew it was going to be different. And he was scared of that. His wife was a teacher and a church lady and very popular around here. But Steve had married her a long time ago, right after the war. And things had changed between them in twenty years. You never really know about somebody else’s marriage, but I believed him. His marriage had become just one of these polite things, where the closeness had been frayed many years ago. And mine never even had much closeness. My ex-husband was a man with a violent temper, as likely to overturn the dinner dishes if the meat came out well done as to finish a meal without an incident.
“Steve and I never spent more than two hours a week with each other before we asked for divorces. But those two hours were more precious to me than the whole of the days and nights that preceded them. Once he got sick and I felt my own life draining out of me. He’d had a mild heart attack. I couldn’t visit him in the hospital, couldn’t even send word. Suppose he had died?
“It was when he recovered that we decided that whatever people around here would think of us, we had to end our marriages and be together. I was thirty-nine. I knew I might be divorcing only to marry a man who might be an invalid, who might even die on me. But none of that made any difference. We would at least have whatever time we could.”
It had been very hard on Steve’s wife. Forty-six at the time, she had just been getting ready to settle down with Steve to the relaxed life of people whose children have noisily grown and quietly parted. She wanted to go to Europe with Steve when he recovered. When he told her his plans she tried to kill herself, driving their car careening and screeching into an abandoned barn. But she lived, coming through her collision with only minor injuries. Ann felt troubled about relating this. “People around here took her side against me. They think I acted blindly. But I didn’t. I understand how much she hates me, and why she kept the children from visiting Steve all those years. It could have been me, when I’d reached her age; women shouldn’t have to spend their last years alone. But it wasn’t just a case of ’her or me.’ There was Steve, too, and he needed another chance, a chance with me.”
I stayed overnight at their house. When Steve came home from work, he embraced Ann heartily and only then turned to be introduced. I had a moment in which I observed them, him unaware of my presence, cuddling his great gawky wife. Yes, it ended in this kind of realignment sometimes.
I was glad I had finally come across Ann Simpson. Later I met a few others like her. Yet only a few. I often wondered how it was possible that out of close to seventy women, I interviewed only four or five who had chosen their extramarital lovers with sufficient care and concern that a good life in the future was possible with them. Would I have found many more who had ended up together, and happily together, had I doubled my sample, talked to a hundred and forty women? Tripled it and talked to two hundred and ten? Or was it just inevitable that extramarital sexual relations had to end bumpily? There was so much to collide against. Still, the urge to end a marriage and be with a particular lover could be overwhelming. The fact that sometimes such arrangements worked—no matter how rarely—would provide sufficient fuel to make such voyages at least possible destinations.
Barbara Bendiner / I Decided, Let Them Laugh
I was considering all this when I went out reluctantly one stormy February night to meet Barbara Bendiner in a Third Avenue bar and grill. It was one of those nights when you get soaked to the skin just stepping out from under a canopy and into a taxi. But I had been trying to obtain an interview with Barbara for over a year. From the time I first heard of her situation I had been curious.
“She is fifty,” said the friends who had first told me about her, a husband and wife who had known Barbara for close to twenty years. “And the man she’s been seeing for the last five years is only twenty-six. And there are other incongruities. She’s very conventional and he’s a poet and he’s black.”
“What does she look like?” I had asked, seeking the expected component of beauty or extreme youthfulness.
“Rather ordinary,” said the wife.
“Fairly well-preserved,” said the husband.
The wife, a gentle, perceptive woman, had said, “On Barbara’s part the relationship strikes me as somewhat masochistic. For one thing, she’s helping to support this man.”
The husband, and it was surprising from him, had said, “But what’s wrong with that? You wouldn’t call it the same—call it masochism—if it was a man and not a woman sleeping with someone younger and contributing to his lover’s support.”
The wife said, “No, but you can’t compare the two. Not yet.”
How curious I became about Barbara. But a year went by before the interview was arranged. My friends had hesitated, unsure of whether or not Barbara would talk to a stranger. From time to time we would discuss it, and they would mean to ask her, and then draw back. Finally they introduced us at a lunch at their house in the suburbs and Barbara said yes, she would get together with me. There was something, actually, that she wanted to ask me.
Barbara had chosen to be interviewed in a noisy, dark café on Third Avenue. It was a place she and Keith, her lover, hung out in on nights they came into the city. She had been planning to bring him along, she told me when she arrived, but he had had a wisdom tooth pulled today and was home with a bad ache in his gums and she herself would have to drive back soon to look after him. She mused for a while on how babyish men are, how unable to care for themselves. “If they get a cold they won’t even go out and buy a box of tea for themselves. I have to do all Keith’s marketing or he’d starve to death.”
While she was talking I was, I must admit, staring at her. Wasn’t she an embodiment of a poignant fantasy, the older woman able to appeal to and hold a younger man? She did seem younger than fifty, if I didn’t look closely. She had the kind of pale skin that I associate with youth; freckles and passing blushes of pink. And she was dressed like a schoolgirl, in a turtleneck sweater and a wide wool skirt. A little peaked cap hid her forehead, and it was only later, when she removed the cap, that I saw that her face was at all wrinkled.
“About how long have you been married?” I asked.
“Since 1942,” she said.
“Let me subtract. That’s more than thirty years. You know it doesn’t look possible. You look so young.”
She said, “I was twelve at the time.”
“You must have been!”
“I was about seventeen or eighteen,” she said.
“Does that youthful look run in your family?” I asked.
“I guess so. But I always looked very young. When I was twenty I looked like twelve.”
“Who is the young man that you’re seeing?” I asked.
“He’s a very close friend that I used to work with. I work in a social work agency. He came there as a clerk, about five years ago. But now he’s becoming a poet, and he’s studying writing. He’s black. He’s very black. I don’t mean colorwise, although he is that too. I mean culturewise. I never knew anybody black before, not until I started to work at that agency.
“It was about five or six years ago, maybe even more. You lose track of the time. It goes so fast. It might be even six or seven years. It’s a long, long time ago.”
“He’s also married?” I asked.
“No, he’s a young man. He’s the same age as the eldest of my three sons. He’s only twenty-seven years old now.”
“So he was just a youngster when you started out. Were you one of his very first girlfriends?”
“No. In the culture that he’s in, I know it sounds crazy, but young men have girlfriends at a very early age. He told me that the first time he went to bed with a girl was when he was thirteen. So of course I was not his first. In fact, he was going with a girl when we started up. He had been going with her for a couple of years. And he continued seeing her on and off during our first years. Although we were together, he would, you know, go with somebody. Perhaps if I had been much younger, I might have minded. But I didn’t. I always felt, if he goes, let him go.”
“Still, you must have had a lot of insecurity about it.”
“Not so much. I don’t remember. I suppose I probably did. But I always felt it was the only thing I could do, that it was the only thing you can do with a man. Just say, ’Go, fine. I mean, you go right ahead.’ After all, just look at me! Look at me! I’m very old.”
It was at this point that she removed her cap, ruffling her shoulder-length blond hair. “In the beginning, you know, he was a kid. We talked about it. We said, ’Why? Why? Why do you love me?’ It wasn’t just me saying, ’Why do you love me when I’m so much older than you?’ It was him saying, ’Why do you love me when I’m so much younger than you?’ He sees it this other way. It’s really funny. It’s cuckoo. I don’t mean to say that he has a low feeling about himself, either. He’s got a swell image. He’s well respected and he’s a very fine poet. He’s had various offers lately about publishing his poems.
“My answer for why I love him has always been the same. I always said, ’Because you really enjoy everything so much, and when I’m with you, I enjoy everything.’
“In the beginning when we started going together, I used to think everybody was staring. They probably were. But he always thought they were staring because of the color thing, while I always thought they were staring because of the age thing.
“Of course, he helps me pick my clothes. I love that. And he’s taught me how to dress, and how to wear hats, and what colors look best on me. But no matter how much younger I look, I can never look as young as him. So I used to think people were staring, and also that they were laughing at me. But after a while, my attitude changed. I decided let them laugh, because if they knew what Keith and I had together, they’d be jealous.
“The first time we went on the Staten Island Ferry, for instance, we went back and forth eight times. He’d never been on it before, and when we went, he just wouldn’t stop. From the afternoon until the evening, we went back and forth, and he was so excited, so interested in everything, the clouds, all the different colors on the water. To this day when we ride on the East River Drive he’s forever pointing out this and that to me—things I’d never notice by myself.
“I know it sounds crazy. I look in the mirror. I say, ’Oh, God. In five years I’ll be an old lady.’ But that’s just the point. He makes me feel I’m getting and giving the kind of love I’d been waiting for all my life.”
Their affair had started off slowly. “It just happened,” said Barbara. “I didn’t plan it. He was working late one day, and I was waiting around for something, and he came into my office, and I just waved to him. And we started talking. And I drove him home to the apartment he was staying in with friends, and he invited me up for a beer, and we talked some more and it happened.”
At that time, and for the first two years they had sexual relations, Keith was seeing a young woman with a baby quite steadily, and Barbara and he got together only rarely. But their relationship had deepened when his other affair broke off, and they began spending a great deal of time together. “It works out that we see each other almost every day. I go over to his place all day on Sundays. But I only stay late with him one night a week. Tuesdays. The rest of the week we just get together for an hour or so after work.”
I wanted to know about her husband. How did she explain her absences?
“I don’t anymore. He knows about Keith and me.”
“And you’re still together?”
“That’s the point!” she exclaimed. “He once found us together. Now almost any other man would just have walked out and said, you know, good-bye. But he didn’t. Partly it was a practical consideration. You know, if you’re rich, you can just walk out and go down to a hotel, or get another apartment. But when you’re not rich, where do you go?
“And then, it’s his personality. He’s a very angry guy, and he’s always very down and depressed. He’s interested in nothing. Nothing. Not other women, not movies, not going places. Since he found out about Keith, we’ve been separated, at least in effect. He sleeps upstairs and I sleep downstairs. It’s been that way the last three years. And we haven’t had sex for about two years. But I guess we stay together because neither of us knows where to go next.”
Barbara was growing uneasy now, and soon she had launched into her dilemma. She told me that the reason she had come to be interviewed was because she wanted my advice. Knowing what I knew of her story, and whatever other stories I had gathered, did I think it would make any sense for her to move in with Keith? Lately it had become her obsession. Her three sons were grown, so there was no longer any point in maintaining the big suburban house with its lawns and yards and sports equipment. She and her husband had begun to discuss future plans. At first, they had talked of selling the house and getting an apartment in the city. But little by little she had determined that now was the time to break from her husband, the time for her either to take her own apartment or to move in with Keith. She was heading toward the latter choice.
“Keith wants it. But I’m worried. We’ve been together so long that we’re practically married, except for the fact that we’re not living together. We take certain things for granted. You know, we take care of each other’s needs. I take home his wash. Lots of times when I’m there for the night, on the Tuesdays when I’m there all night, he’ll get up and take the car and drive off to Hempstead to visit friends or do whatever he wants. Or his friends will come in to visit him. They don’t pay much attention to me. I’m old hat. There’s no bedroom in Keith’s current apartment. The bed is in the living room and I have been in that bed, you know, lying there, half-asleep, when he has come home with friends. And I just, you know, either look up and say hello or continue sleeping.”
What worried Barbara was that, although two of her sons were married and on their own now, the third, still in college, was still coming home for vacations and weekends. She and Keith would have to take an apartment big enough for the three of them. What did I think of that? she asked. Her sons knew Keith, but she’d never quite explained the relationship to them. There had been no direct conversation. What did I think would happen if now she took a place with Keith, and her youngest son came home there on weekends?
What I thought would happen was that if she were to do it, which I totally doubted she would, within a month she would be on her own in a place of her own. But this is not what happened. Barbara and Keith took an apartment together. Barbara’s husband moved to the city, alone. And Barbara’s youngest son stays with her and Keith on his vacations and holidays. It has been a year now. Is she happy? Is Keith happy? My friends, who see them from time to time, can make no clear evaluation of the relationship. The wife reports that Barbara seems more nervous these days, somewhat disjointed in her language, tense. But Barbara herself holds that she has finally made sense out of her life, finally done what she should have done years before. My friends worry when they see her about what will happen if Keith becomes attached to a younger woman. But whenever they allude to this possibility Barbara says, “I want whatever I can get now. In four years, I’ll be a very old lady.”